Theme and strands



Complexity is the defining character of the changes we face in today’s societies. This complexity influences our choices in how to address the challenges that young children and families are facing in the early years, the founding period for lifelong learning. Migration, increasing poverty and inequality, segregation, multilingualism, mass-communication channels and tools, increasing unemployment rates, uncertainty regarding the future, social tensions and a lack of trust in political institutions, are only a few of the circumstances which affect family stability and wellbeing, and the environments in which young children grow and learn about themselves and the world around them.

These rapid changes can also bring opportunities: in an increasingly urbanized world, cities can play a key role in designing solutions to respond to the needs of young children and families. Increased connectivity across the globe makes it easier to learn about and share these solutions. The speed of the changes in today’s world also requires substantial shifts in the way early childhood systems are designed, equipped, governed, financed and supported, if we are to capitalize on the tremendous importance of early childhood development for children, families and communities. It is no longer possible to have parallel discourses that create distance between institutional arrangements, political priorities and the lived experience of families. Investments in a system that aims for the average majority excludes families on both end sides of the curve. Change management gives opportunities to customize local services/responses to all families regardless of their social and cultural backgrounds.

It is time to embrace a systemic approach to addressing the critical problems that hinder children and families’ rights, and to learn from local responsive approaches to build competent early childhood systems.


Towards competent early childhood workforce and services

The early childhood workforce is the powerhouse of the early childhood system. It is through them that services become meaningful, useful, and relevant for young children and families. The current context of rapid societal change requires readiness to respond to increasing demands. This means ensuring that both pre-service and in-service training are improved beyond the traditional and sector-siloed view of the early childhood professions, and ensuring early childhood services provide a nurturing, stimulating and supportive professional environment for the workforce.
Closing the gap between theory and practice means building those competences which contribute to equalizing opportunities for all children and families, across all sectors in the early childhood workforce. Are pre-service and in-service training fit for purpose? Do they equip the early childhood workforce with the emerging competences they need to provide high-quality early years services today? What approaches in training and pedagogical coaching contribute to building a competent workforce?
In addition to the physical aspect of working with young children, the aging profile of its professionals and the unpopular career choice, a continuous search for boosting commitment and raising participation levels brings new challenges in managing an early childhood workforce.
Ensuring a motivating and supportive professional environment for the workforce is crucial. This relies upon the capacity of early childhood services and training institutions to provide professional development opportunities that value personal and professional growth, teamwork, peer learning and group reflection, and an ongoing concern for responsive quality practices through a close dialogue with families and communities.
The concern of institutions for pedagogical leadership, diversity in both workforce and professional learning experiences, and career development adds to the complex picture of providing competent early childhood services with competent staff. Thus, to what extent do the current early childhood services, pre-service and in-service institutions embrace structural and process changes to promote professionalism and services attuned with children’s and families’ demands?

Towards a competent early childhood inter-institutional environment

The inter-institutional environment which supports educators and early childhood centre managers must also be competent. This requires collaboration between local early years services and other social, educational and cultural institutions, including departments in the city councils, organizations of ECEC centers, umbrella organizations and training institutions. Together they represent the architecture of the early childhood social system. Children and families in vulnerable situations ask for systemic and integrated responses to various, but interconnected needs in which material and immaterial resources are linked. A common culture and a shared image of a competent and active child as well as a shared rights-based ethics among practitioners from different sectors, pre- and in-service institutions, and local authorities is pivotal to inter-agency collaboration. With this in mind, which initiatives are needed on the inter-institutional level to further support creative pedagogical strategies for equipping practitioners with the capacity to meet the current demands of families and children? Peer learning groups around common issues or intervision sessions among different services and institutions could be one avenue, and in this sense the training centers (university colleges, universities, in-services training centers) and innovation centers may play an essential role. Integration of services in more systemic ways is yet another. Didactical tools on different aspects of working with children, parents and communities can also be developed for pedagogical counsellors on institutional and inter-institutional level.

How can collaboration between services and sectors or the integration of early childhood service delivery (childcare, kindergarten, parental support centres, infant health centres, preschools) be strengthened so that the diverse needs of parents and children are better met? In developing the quality of services, the voices of the workforce, parents, children and communities can contribute in close dialogue. Ensuring smooth transitions between childcare and kindergarten and between pre-primary and primary is another challenge for an efficient inter-institutional cooperation. Collaboration between immaterial services (e.g. child care or parent support) and material services (housing, employment, urban development, welfare allowances, etc.) is also another challenge.

How do national, European and international projects contribute to strengthening the competences of early childhood services and to creating a competent inter-institutional environment addressing the challenges of contemporary hyper-diverse societies?

Towards a competent early childhood governance and policies

In a competent early childhood system, the close collaboration between policymakers, researchers and practitioners is crucial for realizing effective and democratic policies which lead to sustainable change. While research seeks to show the complexity of issues in a nuanced way, policymakers are looking for efficient solutions supported by scientific evidence. In order to achieve sustainable change, close dialogue between policymakers and practitioners is crucial. It can be nurtured through democratic consultation groups involving policymakers and ECEC stakeholders, including ECEC workforce, parents and community representatives. What are the ways for nurturing dialogue among policymakers, researchers, practitioners and other stakeholders to stimulate in-depth analysis and critical thinking around early years policies and attuned service delivery?

The governance level refers among other things to vision, financing and monitoring. Legislation differs substantially across and within countries. Despite this, structural conditions (and thus competent governance) including decent working conditions, remuneration, and adequate funding for pre-service, in-service training and service delivery play a key role. Quality assurance systems, scientifically based and democratically debated curricula, professional and training competence profiles and adequate monitoring systems are essential components of a competent early childhood system.

Consistency and coherence among these components should be ensured, knowing that issues on one level impact all other levels.  With this in mind, which effective policies are needed to translate these components into a continuous and self-learning system that delivers high quality early childhood services?

International organizations like the European Union, UNICEF, UNESCO, OECD, World Bank and international foundations play an important role in influencing policy and governance. They can contribute to strengthening national early childhood systems and providing inspiration for approaches at country level. However, they may also narrow the discretionary space of regional or local policies. To what extent are their efforts supporting country policies and governance and contributing to the architecture of a competent early childhood system?

Bringing these strands together in a coherent framework creates competent early childhood systems. Building this architecture creates systemic responses to societal challenges surrounding children and families, as well as professionals and services.